"Good writing is clear thinking made visible."
- Bill Wheeler
I keep it there because it reminds me of the one rule I'm most likely to forget, the Law of Writing that was whispered, bellowed and nagged into my psyche by my writing professor in college:
Tell the truth in the fewest, simplest words possible.
If, like me, you love the most succulent kind of literary fiction, you might guess how I could forget this rule. If, like me, you also aspire to write the same, you know my struggle, because you share it.
Aspirations to succulence entice a writer to wordiness and wish-wash. An author who wants her writing to be "beautiful," "poetic," or "magical" is tempted to build her descriptive muscles at the expense of her truth-telling ones - for understandable reasons. The adverbs and adjectives in true writing are often exquisite. Consider this out of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead:
"Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"
It's easy to be so dazzled by a word like "transfiguration," that something you felt keenly in the reading, the shock of truth, gets obscured when you sit down to "write like that." And how does it get obscured? Why do we hang up on the descriptor, "like transfiguration," and miss the punch: "who could have the courage to see it?"
Because there's no Thesaurus for truth. Adverbs and adjectives lie scattered around us. We think truth does, too, but that's an illusion. What we call truth, those warmed over lumps of pre-packaged words that lie closest at hand have come to us from movies and greeting cards and songs and sermons and talk shows and cute little poster things on Facebook and Pinterest.
Understand: those non-truth's may actually be true. On occasion they may even be good theology in a way that succulent truth is not.
It's hard to see and accept the difference, and believers struggle more than most. We want to be right - especially in our theology. We want to transmit to our readers something we hold precious. It takes courage and faith to loosen our grip on what comes to us packaged and approved.
But the kind of truth that is organic to the author, the kind drawn - often painfully - from her own chest, brings a gift that theology neglects. It draws the reader to the quick of her own truth - her own Book of Job questions, and her Jacob-ish drives - to the place where she wrestles with angels. There's no holier ground.
So how's it done? How do we tell the truth in the fewest and simplest words possible?
We write a lot of words.
We throw words on a big page, the way Jackson Pollock used to dash paint onto a big canvas. When he finished with the dashing, he would stand back for a long look, to pick out the "painting within the painting." When he'd found it, he'd cut out that bit of canvas and stretch it onto a frame.*
His method reminds me of a scene in Dead Poet's society, in which the teacher, John Keating, helps the student, Todd Anderson, to pull the succulent truth from his chest:
Personally - much as I love this film - I wonder if Todd Anderson would have found those words, self-conscious as he was, in a classroom full of his peers. But he might have found them if he'd spun circles round words upon words - more words than if he only longed for succulence. Words and words and words till his skin snapped with the shock of truth, and he knew he could cut the rest.
Now your turn:
Have you struggled as I have with telling the truth? (Please say yes.) What have you brought back from the fray?
Do tell. We love to read what you have to say.
*I learned this from Jocelyn Lieu's chapter titled Circling the Unsayable, in Words of Thumb, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville.